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By Maggie Grabmeier
Ramona settled into her seat, nudging her guitar case further under the table with her foot. The restaurant she had travelled to was called Scales, a three-way pun between the dingy monthly open mic nights, the fried seafood on the menu, and the presence of physical weight measuring devices crammed onto shelves and nailed onto walls. The scales were old and discolored and from a variety of time periods. One time Ramona had put her hand on the flat part of one and watched the dial leap upward with her weight, but a waiter with a Boston accent told her not to touch. Since then she had thought the restaurant was trying too hard.
She looked around at the other people in the room. A lot of them she recognized as regular performers, like that older man with a Red Sox cap who played bluegrass, a high school girl who brought a long-haired boy to play guitar for her. They both played covers. Ramona pulled a stack of CDs out of her backpack and set them on the table in front of her. They were wrapped in a hand-folded paper envelope with the words “Ramona Coates EP” scribbled in hasty Sharpie black. She also brought out a piece of paper that said “CDs $1” in the same handwritten rush. The sign generally turned off the people in the restaurant from wanting to buy a CD because the price was so low that it seemed sad.
Ramona swung her long black hair over her shoulder and picked her Yamaha out of its case. The fingers on her left hand stretched and crawled to the G chord. Blackbird was one of the first songs she’d ever learned, and the first song she always played when she absently picked up her guitar. She swung it abnormally slowly and quietly so that the sound of her fingers sliding up and down the metallic strings held as much weight as the staccato plucking of notes she played. She closed her eyes as she started to hum/sing the lyrics. Halfway through the first verse, the restaurant manager tapped the microphone with her fingers, sending a thump and a whine of feedback through the speaker next to the makeshift stage.
As the owner began to thank everyone for coming, Ramona glanced out the window behind the stage. Though it was nearly 8 p.m., the sun still shone through into the restaurant, casting the owner’s face in shadow.
“And for our showcased performer tonight, all the way from Providence, we have the lovely Pandora Blodgett! So you all can look forward to that at 9:00 after the open mic portion of the night.” The restaurant owner’s voice was high pitched, and she emphasized her “s”’s so strongly it sounded calculated. Ramona had never heard of Pandora Blodgett, but she clapped without smiling along with the rest of the crowd, following the restaurant owner’s gaze to a thin middle-aged woman with blonde hair so long she was almost sitting on it. She was wearing a white sundress and a necklace with an enormous blue stone. She looked at the ground during the applause. Coy, Ramona thought, like an older young Joni Mitchell. “Without further ado, I give you our first performer!”
Ramona barely paid attention to the singers and poets that went before her. She had planned to debut a new song, still untitled, and she went over the lyrics in her head, deciding every once in a while to make a minor lyrical change at the last minute. She always played a new song at the Scales open mic. This one was about her college breakup, as most of her songs were. In every respect she was over it, but for some reason her guitar would not sing for anyone else. At first she felt desperate singing about the same thing, a boy who did not deserve her songs, but after a while she grew to accept the germ of her inspiration. All that mattered after all was the music. She considered saying hi to that high school girl but rationalized against leaving her guitar unattended at the table.
She majored in Communications in college, and though she always told her friends she was going to pursue her music, she got a job right out of school managing the social media sites for a Boston cosmetics company. She sat at a desk metaphorically crumpling up snappy phrases to post onto a Facebook page that no one checked. “Temporary”, she said to her friends, but she’d been there for two years and the only musical outlet she pursued was playing monthly open mic nights with people she did not take at all seriously. After the fifth open mic performer, she heard her name called.
“Next up, we have our wonderful regular, Ramona Coates!”
Ramona ducked under her guitar strap and adjusted her hair as she walked forward to the stage. How long had it been since she’d become a regular? The first few times she’d come here she’d had a band: two scruffy looking boys on drums and bass. They played gigs with her the summer after graduation, accepting free drinks from bars all around Boston. She’d sung louder back then, and stomped her feet on the stage to the beat of her songs. Sometimes she would have toyed with the audience, winking at strangers that caught her eye.
She cleared her throat and smiled at the crowd. The room looked emptier from the stage. Her pre-song speech fell from her mouth: name, Ramona, CDs, sale, new song, untitled, here it goes. She took a deep breath and hooked her left thumb around the neck of her guitar. Gaze on the ground, she started gently thumping the slow beat on the body of her Yamaha, bobbing her head forward at each knock. Her eyes closed and her fingers started to strum a slow, syncopated A minor. Leaning her face into the microphone, she let a deep guttural hum slide up to pitch. Her song was bluesy and low, relatable and sad. She let her head dip back as she stretched for the higher notes in the chorus, and as the chords settled back down, she noticed the blonde woman tapping her foot in the audience.
Ramona caught her eye and crooned; normally she avoided extended eye contact with strangers, but when she was singing she let her gaze sit with her audience like it was a part of the song. Pandora Blodgett looked right back, her head tilted to the side, and Ramona wondered what she was thinking.
As she rounded the bend of the final chorus, Ramona slowed the tempo and let the last chord hang for one beautiful resonating moment. She suspended the look on her face: her closed eyes and furrowed brow, willing her song to last just a second longer. Finally, she relaxed her body and whispered a “thank you” into the microphone and stepped off the stage.
A few people whispered compliments to her as she walked past their tables, which she smiled at politely, but she felt a little emptier after she sat down. After the adrenaline wore off, Ramona looked at the little restaurant, filled always with the same little people, and she pitied herself. Next week, she thought, I’ll post an ad on Craigslist or something. Find a drummer. Temporary, she thought. This place isn’t for me. She put her guitar back in its case and felt old.
On the stage, Pandora was setting up. She moved slowly, forcing the audience to wait in hushed half-attention as she tuned her guitar. She had a contraption on the ground that looked like a tambourine attached to a foot pedal. Finally, she looked into the crowd and sighed with a smile as she introduced herself. Her voice was soft and high, and she spoke quickly, nervously, but happily. Ramona watched her pluck around on her guitar as she talked about her recent CD release. Her fingers toyed over the strings and she finger-picked over chords like she was playing a Spanish guitar, lightly and playfully. Even these little riffs flitted like conversations. She talked about places that she’d gone to perform: music festivals all over the world, she travelled and wrote and found open mics wherever she happened to be. She didn’t introduce her song, but she took a beat to tuck her hair behind her ears before she started to play.
It was a folk song. Her voice was delicate and high, flickering over poetic phrases. She let the ends of her phrases trail off, like they were falling asleep. The lyrics were abstract and beautiful, creating a sort of landscape of emotion, twisting between images of hands, light, that feeling when you wake up next to your lover. The song was a pretty combination of wandering vocals and sharp, virtuosic guitar. As much as she fell for the song, Ramona could not help but feel bad for the middle-aged woman. Her prowess was obviously proof that she had been doing this for a very, very long time. How many albums did she say she had published? And here she was, picking one song out of probably hundreds to play to the people at Scales.
As the song came to a close, Ramona dutifully clapped and she noticed Pandora looking to her. From this side of the stage, she felt uncomfortable. The restaurant manager waltzed back onto the stage and encouraged everyone to come back next week while the regular chatter and scraping of chairs against the floor resumed. Ramona stood up and started to collect her CDs, not waiting for anyone to approach her for a purchase. She shoved the discs into her backpack along with her sign, and she started to fasten the clasps on her guitar case when she saw Pandora headed toward her, smile donned. Ramona stood up tiredly and smiled as well, relaxing a flutter in her stomach.
“Great song. I really liked it,” she said as she shook her hand. “Ramona Coates.”
“Thank you,” Pandora laughed, “and your song was so amazing. You’re a great songwriter. It’s great to see young people with such talent.” She looked straight at Ramona with a kind of intensity that made her doubt the sincerity of her eye contact. The stone around her neck ducked distractingly in and out of the collar of her dress.
Ramona smiled back, unsure of what to say next. She was most flattered at being called young. It made her feel like she was on the cusp of something and still had somewhere to go. Pandora sat down at the table and pulled a one-dollar bill out of her wallet.
“Could I have a copy of that CD?”
She offered a sincere but unusual look, childish and curious. Ramona was eager to leave, but the look on Pandora’s face made her stop. She had written the songs years ago, but she hadn’t bothered to record anything more current because they passed in and out of her repertoire every month. She pulled a CD out of the bag and told her not to worry about the dollar. She felt stupid. Pandora asked about the songs on the CD, her inspiration, history, and as she probed deeper, Ramona admitted her disappointment in Scales and in the open mic scene, but as she said it out loud she felt pretentious and greedy.
“I know what you mean. I rarely play in the same place twice, but Boston is fun. I bet there are a ton of great venues.”
Ramona nodded and smiled, praying that she wouldn’t ask her to name a few. She drove past those bars and concert halls, reading other people’s names in the one-night-only signs. For some reason, she wanted to impress Pandora. She wanted to welcome her to a town that she wasn’t quite a part of, but instead she asked her about herself.
In Providence, Pandora owned a little guitar shop where she taught children how to play and write music. Ramona liked the picture of Pandora, patiently teaching a child the Beatles. Put your fingers here, and I know it’s hard, but you’ll get stronger with practice, she heard in her head.
“So Ramona, I don’t know if this would interest you, but I am trying to start a music and craft festival in September in Providence, and I am looking for a few headliners. I really liked your sound. What do you think?”
Ramona frowned in consideration, and thought about her college years. She’d been to Providence before. It was nice.
“You know what, yeah. I would like that.”
Maggie Grabmeier is a senior English major at the University of Pennsylvania.